The Real Enemies of Perseverance–and Success

One trait that’s deeply cultivated in this country–to a fault, really–is perseverance.  How many times have we heard that “winners never quit and quitters never win”?  How many times have we heard stories about people who have “pursued their dream” often a great cost (to someone) and accomplished what they set out to do.  Isn’t that the American way?

Let’s start by considering just what perseverance is to start with.  As our old friend Thomas Aquinas would say, perseverance is simply to persist at length towards a good goal (cf. 2-2, q. 137, a. 1).  Whether perseverance is a virtue depends first on the nature of the goal.  If the goal is bad, all the perseverance in the world won’t make it any better.  (If we can’t tell right from wrong, do we really know whether it matters or not)?

Beyond that, there are two main enemies of perseverance: softness and pertinacity.

Softness is simply the situation where “someone to be ready to back away from a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure.” (2-2, q. 138, a. 1)  It doesn’t mean that someone who is actually defeated by a superior force is soft; it means that a soft person is one “who backs away from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion”.  We see that a lot these days; people would rather drink, take drugs, hook up and party and not stick to what they’re supposed to be doing.  That, IMHO, is why it has taken the left so long to win the culture war.  Their principal goal, although they’re loathe to admit it, is for they and everyone else to drink, take drugs, hook up and party, and that goal has been in their way for the last fifty years.

The technical term for the other enemy of perseverance is pertinacity. A “person is said to be pertinacious who holds on impudently, as being utterly tenacious.”  To stick the knife in further, Aquinas brings in Aristotle to note that he “calls (the pertinacious) ischyrognomones, that is “head-strong,” or idiognomones, that is “self-opinionated,” because they abide by their opinions more than they should” (2-2, q. 138, a. 2).

Although we generally see softness as the primary opponent to success, anyone who has moved in a workplace or a church or a political institution knows that self-proclaimed know-it-alls or bull-headed people can ruin an institution–and the lives connected with it–as fast as anything else.  And it’s easy–especially in our extreme culture–to mistake this for real perseverance, but the failure from pertinacity can be far worse than the failure due to softness.

A good example of that which is familiar to many readers of this blog is the Anglican/Episcopal property wars.  Even with élite opinion running in their favour, the Episcopal Church has spent in excess of forty million dollars to hold property they have no practical game plan to populate.  A little thoughtful consideration could have netted a positive cash flow by using the Dennis Canon as a weapon during negotiations.  Some in the church actually figured that out, but such sensible strategy is beyond its current general leadership.

So what do we do?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Set good goals.  Perseverance of any kind is bad if the goals are bad.  The best goal is eternal life; the rest are in reference to same.
  2. Keep the goal you set in front of you.  One of the problems with pertinacity is that it substitutes the process for the goal, which means you get bogged down.
  3. Have a “Plan B” and an exit strategy.  It’s considered “unAmerican” to have either these days, but if it’s true so be it.  If your earthly goal is what it is supposed to be, “Plan B” should be just another way to get there.  Lacking same is another way we get trapped in pertinacity.
  4. Don’t let the pleasure of the moment deflect you from the goal.  Make provision for some “good times” in the plan but don’t make them the plan.

If we adopt sensible, strategic goals and methods of achieving these goals, our perseverance can count and we can avoid the pitfalls its enemies present to us.

All quotations from Aquinas are from the Summa Theologiae.

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